By ANDREA RODRIGUEZ and PETER ORSI
HAVANA - The Cuban government announced Tuesday that it will no longer require islanders to apply for an exit visa, eliminating a much-loathed bureaucratic procedure that has been a major impediment for many seeking to travel overseas for more than a half-century.
A notice published in Communist Party newspaper Granma said that as of Jan. 14, islanders will only have to show their passport and a visa from the country they are traveling to.
It is the most significant advance this year in President Raul Castro's five-year plan of reforms that has already seen the legalization of home and car sales and a big increase in the number of Cubans owning private businesses.
"These measures are truly substantial and profound," said Col. Lamberto Fraga, Cuba's deputy chief of immigration, at a morning news conference. "What we are doing is not just cosmetic, and requires 90 days to properly establish a series of regulations ... so it works well and there are no problems."
The newspaper said that the government had decided to "update the current migratory policy" and "eliminate the procedure of the exit visa for travel to the exterior."
Migration is a highly politicized issue in Cuba and beyond its borders.
Under the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, the United States allows nearly all Cubans who reach its territory to remain. Granma published an accompanying editorial blaming the travel restrictions imposed in 1961 on U.S. attempts to topple the island's government, plant spies and recruit its best-educated citizens.
"It is because of this that any analysis of Cuba's problematic migration inevitably passes through the policy of hostility that the U.S. government has developed against the country for more than 50 years," the editorial said.
It assured Cubans that the government recognizes their right to travel abroad and said the new measure is part of "an irreversible process of normalization of relations between emigrants and their homeland."
The decree still imposes limits on travel by many Cubans. People cannot obtain a passport or travel abroad without permission if they face criminal charges, if the trip affects national security or if their departure would affect efforts to keep qualified labor in the country.
Doctors, scientists, members of the military and others considered valuable parts of society currently face restrictions on travel to combat brain drain.
"The update to the migratory policy takes into account the right of the revolutionary State to defend itself from the interventionist and subversive plans of the U.S. government and its allies," the newspaper said. "Therefore, measures will remain to preserve the human capital created by the Revolution in the face of the theft of talent applied by the powerful."
On the streets of Havana, the news was met with a mixture of delight and astonishment. Officials over the years often spoke of their desire to lift the exit visa, but talk failed to turn into concrete change.
"No! Wow, how great!" said Mercedes Delgado, a 73-year-old retiree when told of the news that was announced overnight. "Citizens' rights are being restored."
"Look, I ask myself how far are we going to go with these changes. They have me a little confused because now all that was done during 50 years, it turns out we're changing it," said Maria Romero, a cleaning worker who was headed to her job Tuesday morning. "Everything they told us then, it wasn't true. I tell you, I don't understand anything."
Cuba-born U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen referred to the measure as "so-called reforms" that are "nothing more than Raul Castro's desperate attempts to fool the world into thinking that Cuba is changing.
"But anyone who knows anything about the communist 53- year-old Castro dictatorship knows that Cuba will only be free when the Castro family and its lackeys are no longer on the scene," the South Florida Republican said.
The Cuban government's decision to eliminate exit visas won't mean that Cubans can just get on a plane to the United States.
Kathleen Campbell Walker, an immigration lawyer in El Paso, Texas, said Cubans who fly to the United States are still required to get a State Department-issued visa. Homeland Security officials who review passenger lists for U.S.-bound flights are likely to order an airline to deny boarding to anyone who doesn't have that permission.
Cubans who do make it to the U.S., regardless of whether or not they have a visa, are generally admitted to the country.
"Our own visa requirements remain unchanged," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Tuesday.
"We obviously welcome any reforms that'll allow Cubans to depart from and return to their country freely," said Nuland. "We remain committed to the migration accords under which our two countries support and promote safe, legal and orderly migration."
Under those 1994 accords between the two countries, Washington has encouraged Havana to take steps to prevent any future mass exodus.
Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Washington-based Cuba Study Group, said he is cautiously optimistic that the move will reduce the isolation of the Cuban people and increase interaction between the U.S. and Cuban civil society.
"The important story is the Cuban government has taken a step that has long been demanded by the Cuban people," he said.
Omar Lopez, human rights director of the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, welcomed the elimination of the exit visas, but said it remained unclear whether the change will allow more Cubans to get passports.
"Now, Cubans don't have to pay and get a permit from Cuba to go as a tourist or a visitor, but they say that in order to get a passport you have to comply with some requirements of the law," Lopez said.
Dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez expressed concern that officials might now control travel merely by denying passports.
Cuba has on occasion denied exit visas to government detractors when they sought to travel abroad, and Sanchez she has been turned down 20 times over the last five years.
"I have the suitcase ready to travel. ... Let's see if I get a flight for Jan. 14, 2013, to try out the new law.
The move eliminates a restriction in place since 1961, the height of the Cold War, requiring Cubans to get approval from their government for permission to leave their own country.
Cubans now will also not have to present the long-required letter of invitation from a foreign institution or person in the country they plan to visit.
The measure also extends to 24 months the amount of time Cubans can remain abroad, and they can request an extension when that runs out. Currently, Cubans lose residency and other rights including social security and free health care and education after 11 months.
Granma's editorial said the measure will help address the needs of the Cuban diaspora.
More than 1 million people of Cuban origin live in the United States, and thousands more are in Europe.